American Immigrants

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American Immigrants

LOCATION : United States
RELATED ARTICLES : Vol. 2: Americans


Virtually all Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. As far as we know, the very first immigrants to America migrated from Asia to the North American continent somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. The descendants of these first immigrants are now known as Native North Americans, Native Americans, American Indians, or First Nations people.

The majority of African Americans are not considered to be descended from immigrants because their ancestors were brought to America against their will. Another group of early colonists who were not truly immigrants were some 50,000 English criminals exported to America by the British government. They also did not freely choose to immigrate to America, but once in the New World, they settled down to a new life and became productive citizens.

European explorers arrived on the North American continent in the 15th century and continued to explore its lands throughout the 16th century. By the 17th century, England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands had all established American colonies. The Dutch (Netherlands) were conquered by the English in the late 17th century and withdrew from America, leaving the English, French, and Spanish to fight for control of the continent. The Europeans pushed the Native North Americans westward as they expanded their territories, eventually confining the original North American inhabitants to small reservations on undesirable land.

The 13 English colonies revolted against the crown in 1775 and declared independence from England in 1776. By 1783, the colonists had won the American Revolutionary War and established themselves as the United States of America. The U.S. Constitution contained no laws on immigration. In 1790 the U.S. government did legislate the process for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, however, restricting this privilege to any "free white person" who had resided in the United States for at least two years. In 1810 U.S. president Thomas Jefferson increased the residency requirement to five years, where it has remained ever since.

Because the original 13 states were former English colonies, the language, religion, architecture, customs, and legal, economic, and governmental systems of those English colonists became the standard for the United States. For the next 200 years, all immigrants were expected to be assimilated to the English norm. Only since the late 20th century has the expectation begun to shift away from assimilation towards multi-culturalism in the United States. The basic structure of U.S. society is still based on the English standard, however.

The original English Puritans were fiercely Protestant, committed to a strong work ethic, and violently opposed to any extravagance. They had come seeking freedom from religious persecution but then refused that same freedom to others in their colonies. Other colonists, however, such as William Penn, promoted religious freedom for all, and a number of Catholics and Jews began to settle in America as well. In the 18th century, Scottish and Scotch-Irish (Protestant), Welsh (Protestant), French Huguenot (Protestant), and German (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) immigrants arrived in the United States. Most came to escape religious, economic, and/or political oppression. France and Spain also continued to control parts of North America, and French and Spanish immigrants (nearly all Catholic) settled in those areas.

The rate of immigration rose sharply after the invention of the steamboat in 1819, which cut the length of an ocean crossing from two or more months to one or two weeks. Those who had resisted the notion of traveling for months in miserable conditions over dangerous seas on a sailing ship were much more inclined to take a one- or two-week trip on a heavy steamship. Most ship captains also required that passengers supply their own food, and more people could afford to buy one or two weeks' worth of meals than two or more months' worth. Conditions on the new steamships were still overcrowded and unsanitary, and many immigrants continued to become seriously ill or even die en route. But overall, the risks were fewer and the costs much less, and the number of immigrants increased rapidly.

A population boom throughout Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, caused by better living conditions and medical care, had also created pressure to emigrate. Most European countries did not have enough land to support all the new people, nor were there enough jobs in the pre-industrial cities to support landless peasants. Therefore, people were forced to look elsewhere for means of support. The United States was expanding rapidly and needed workers and homesteaders. Those immigrants who wished to continue farming took advantage of all the free or cheap land available in the United States, especially when the Homestead Act went into effect in 1862 (giving parcels of land at little or no cost to anyone who agreed to work it for at least five years). Others who wanted to get off the farm took one of the plentiful jobs available in mining, railroad and canal construction, lumbering, smithing, and other skilled and unskilled labor necessary for expansion.

Immigrants who came to the United States before 1880 are considered to be in the "first wave" of immigration. First-wave immigrants are also called "old immigrants." Up until the 1880s, the United States had an open-door policy allowing almost anyone to enter the United States. Certain restrictions were applied in the mid-1800s to those with communicable diseases and to indigents with no resources, and no skills to acquire those resources. However, few were turned away, and the U.S. population grew in its multinational character.

"Old immigrants" were primarily Irish, German, Scandinavian, Canadian, and Chinese. Many were single young men who hoped to save up enough money to return home in better circumstances. Some did, in fact, return to their homelands, but the majority ended up settling permanently in the United States. These young men then encouraged their relatives and friends to join them in America, setting off a chain migration. The friends and relatives settled near the original immigrants, creating ethnic neighborhoods or farming communities. "Chinatowns," "Germantowns," and Irish parishes sprang up across the United States. Some of them still exist today.

About two-thirds of all U.S. immigrants by the mid-1800s came through New York City. In 1855, the city opened Castle Garden, a reception center for immigrants where they could stay while being processed. Castle Garden was replaced in 1892 by Ellis Island, which remained in service until 1943. Millions of immigrants to America passed through Ellis Island in its 51 years of functional existence. In 1976 Ellis Island opened for visits, and so many visitors came that in the 1980s the buildings were renovated and then reopened in 1990 as a museum of U.S. immigration history.

The period of 1880–1920, the second wave of U.S. immigration, is referred to as the " Great Migration" because so many immigrants entered the United States during those four decades. In contrast to the first-wave, or "old immigrants," these second-wave "new immigrants" came mostly from southern and eastern Europe and Japan. Southern and eastern Europeans looked quite different from the old immigrants. While the old immigrants were generally fair-skinned Anglo-Saxons, the new immigrants were darker-skinned Slavic and Mediterranean peoples. Most old immigrants had spoken English or another Germanic language upon arrival in the United States, but the new immigrants spoke languages that sounded completely foreign to the old immigrant population. Many more Jews came during the Great Migration, along with Eastern Orthodox and Italian Catholics.

The influx of Japanese to the West added to the anti-Asian sentiments already developing in response to the Chinese presence there. Filipinos "imported" to work on the sugar plantations of Hawaii and in the agricultural industry of the West Coast further increased the perceived Asian threat to European Americans. In 1882 the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first serious restriction on immigration and the only one to target a single ethnic group in U.S. history. The act was extended in 1892 for another 10 years and was then extended indefinitely in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Acts were not repealed until 1943 when China became a U.S. ally in the war against the Japanese in World War II (1939–45).

The Great Migration of 1880–1920 brought 27 million immigrants through Ellis Island. In 1907 Congress passed legislation barring immigrants with physical or mental disabilities that would prevent them from working, immigrants with tuberculosis, and unaccompanied minors (children without adult supervision). Only about 1% of all immigrants were rejected. Once the United States reached its western border and the rate of expansion began to slow down, U.S. residents began to feel pressured by all the new arrivals. In 1921, therefore, the U.S. Congress passed the first generally applied immigration act, limiting new immigrants to 3% of the total population from each ethnicity or nationality already living in the United States. This was an attempt to keep the ethnic makeup of the United States predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration even further, setting stricter quotas for all nationalities. The Oriental Exclusion Act of the same year prohibited any Asians from immigrating. In 1929 the stock market crashed, and the U.S. economy descended into the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, and there was no longer much to offer new immigrants. In response, Congress enacted the first complete national origins quota system, establishing a total limit of 150,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere, divided up according to percentages of the current U.S. population. Great Britain was allowed nearly half the total allowance. Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany combined comprised two-thirds of the total. Italy, which had been sending the largest number of immigrants of any country just prior to enactment of the quota system, was now allowed only 6,000 immigrants per year.

Because the restrictions pertained only to nations of the Eastern Hemisphere, there was no limit on the number of Mexicans who could immigrate to the United States. Mexican workers leapt at the chance to fill the gaps left by European and Asian laborers who could no longer immigrate. However, there were not many jobs available during the Depression years of the 1930s. The United States even began a "repatriation program" to remove Mexican Americans back to Mexico. With the onset of World War II in 1939, however, American men left their jobs to fight in the war, and the United States suddenly suffered a labor shortage. Those same Mexicans who had been repatriated a few years before were now hired as braceros, contract workers with temporary visas.

World War II also brought other immigrants to the shores of America. In 1946, Congress passed the War Brides Act, allowing the immigration of foreign women (and men) who had married or become engaged to U.S. military personnel while they were stationed overseas. Many British women in particular became U.S. residents through this act. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 opened the doors to U.S. immigration a little bit wider, allowing refugees from war-torn Europe to move to America. Many Jews who had been excluded by earlier immigration acts were now able to escape Nazi terrorism through the Displaced Persons Act. The Chinese Exclusion Acts were also repealed, as mentioned above.

A new quota system was introduced in 1952 by the McCarran-Walter Act. The new system still favored northern and western Europeans, however. Not until 1965 did Congress loosen the restrictions on southern and eastern European immigration, as well as immigration from other continents. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed the quota system and instead allowed immigration on a first-come, first-served basis, with preferences given to those who had close family members already in the United States, and those with "desirable" job skills. Total annual limits were placed on immigration from the Western Hemisphere (120,000) and elsewhere (170,000), with a maximum of 20,000 allowed from any one country. In 1978, the act was revised to a single global limit of 290,000, with no distinctions between hemispheres.

Post-World War II immigrants are considered to be the "third wave." The third wave of U.S. immigration is characterized by an easing of restrictions and a rise in the numbers of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The 10 countries with the highest numbers of foreign-born immigrants in the United States today are Mexico (representing 30% of all foreign-born persons counted in the 2000 U.S. Census), China, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Canada, El Salvador, and Germany. The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population is now Hispanic Americans from Latin America, who comprised 52% of the foreign-born population in 2000.

Between 1975 and 1988, some 900,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos also entered the United States. Because of the need to assist refugees from Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, the United States passed the Refugee Act of 1980, setting a special quota of 50,000 for refugees and allowing the U.S. president to accept more as well, if necessary. The general limit for total immigration to the United States was also raised from 290,000 to 320,000. Since 1980 the U.S. president, in consultation with Congress, has set the quota each year for the number of refugees allowed from different parts of the world. For example, in 2008, a total of 80,000 refugees would be accepted, with 28,000 from the Near East and South Asia, 20,000 from East Asia, 16,000 from Africa, 3,000 from Europe and Central Asia, and 3,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, with the remaining 10,000 "unallocated" to be used for special regional needs as they arise.

A "refugee" is defined as one who is homeless due to racial, religious, political, or social persecution. Economic oppression is not considered valid for refugee status. This distinction and the way it is used to exclude certain people from immigrating to the United States is quite controversial. Immigration limits and the refusal by the U.S. government to grant certain people refugee status leads many of those who are excluded to enter the United States by "illegal" means. The number of "illegal" immigrants—the preferred term among the Hispanic community is "undocumented migrants"—has risen sharply since the latter half of the 20th century. Mexicans have crossed the U.S. border without proper documentation since the late 1800s, but they are now being joined by Central Americans, Haitians, Dominicans, and others.

In an effort to reduce the number of undocumented migrants, the U.S. government passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, granting amnesty to undocumented migrants who arrived in the United States before 1982 and could prove at least five years' residency. Immigration offices were unprepared for the hordes of people who applied for amnesty. Those who met the requirements were automatically given a "green card," or legal immigrant status. With legal status, they could now sponsor their relatives to immigrate. So many chose to do so that the U.S. government had to create a new quota category in 1990 to accommodate relatives of recent amnesty recipients.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act also imposed stiff penalties on employers who knowingly hire "illegal aliens." Unfortunately, this did little to stem the flow of undocumented migrants but did make their situation once in the United States much worse than before. A number of employers stopped hiring undocumented migrants, forcing them to go even further underground to find work. Consequently, they became even more vulnerable to exploitation. Many employers, however, discovered that even with the fines they could still save money by hiring undocumented migrants because they could pay them much less than the minimum wage required by law.

Undocumented migrants contribute a great deal of money to the U.S. economy through paying taxes (which almost all do on a regular basis) and spending their money. They also help keep prices down by saving employers wage costs. Very few undocumented migrants make use of government services (such as welfare or food stamps), and what it costs to educate their children is much less than what they give back to the economy. Undocumented migrants also create jobs by starting new businesses and by spending their money at other businesses, enabling those businesses to hire more workers. Despite these realities, however, many established Americans blame much of the economy's ills on undocumented migrants, claiming they take jobs away from legal Americans and drain the economy though the use of public services. In fact, neither is true. As long as both the U.S. economy and the migrants benefit from the arrangement, as they now do, undocumented migration to the United States will continue.

The most recent attempts to limit unwanted immigration into the United States are the Immigration Act of 1990 that limits the number of unskilled workers allowed to immigrate to 10,000 per year; and part of the USA Patriot Act, passed in response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, which specifically prohibits the immigration of any known or suspected terrorists or anyone who has supported or is in any way related to a terrorist organization.

Since the 1980s, the movement in America has been away from assimilation to the Anglo-Saxon norm and toward multiculturalism. Cities with large Hispanic populations have become de facto bilingual, and many schools now offer bilingual education. Ethnic groceries make it possible for newcomers to continue to eat the traditional foods of their former home-lands. Multicultural education and ethnic and racial pride are gaining force across America. Racism and prejudice are still widespread realities, however. A nation made up of individuals from many different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds was a unique experiment when it began in the 18th century. Whether or not Americans can continue to create themselves out of such disparate elements in healthy and harmonious ways remains to be seen.


Groups of immigrants from the same country or ethnic background tend to settle together, at least in the early days of their immigration. Because most immigrants entered the United States by way of New York City, many simply settled there or in the surrounding areas. New York City itself is home to large concentrations of Irish, Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Greek, Southeast Asians, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Hungarian, Russian, and Ukrainian Americans, among others. Members of these groups are also spread across the Northeast (Boston is home to many Irish and Jewish Americans, in particular). Franco-Americans live in the northern sections of the Northeast, near the Canadian border.

California and the West Coast are very popular among Asian, Central American, and Mexican Americans. Cuban and Haitian Americans, as well as some U.S. Central Americans, on the other hand, prefer Miami, Florida. Filipinos and Japanese are heavily concentrated in both California and Hawaii, those being common ports of entry for Pacific immigrants. Texas is another popular destination for both Mexican and Vietnamese Americans. There is also a fairly large German American population in Texas.

For the most part, however, German Americans chose the farmlands of the Midwest and Dakotas, as did Scandinavian Americans. A special group of German immigrants, called the Amish, also settled in the Midwest, as well as the Mid-Atlantic region. They set up their distinctive farming communities on the fertile soil of such states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Immigrants who were not interested in farming headed for the industrial cities of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest regions of the United States. Chicago drew Italian, Jewish, Slavic, Polish, Greek, Hungarian, and Irish Americans. Hungarian Americans, along with Slavic, Polish, and Ukrainian Americans, also settled in cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Arab Americans continue to flock to the Detroit, Michigan, area where they were originally drawn by jobs at the Henry Ford Motor Company. Many still work in the automotive industry.

Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 18th century tended to settle in Pennsylvania, while those from Scotland preferred the South, especially North Carolina. Louisiana, with its French flavor, drew both Cajuns from Canada, and French plantation owners from Haiti. Bordering on Mexico, and having once been Mexican territory, Arizona and New Mexico are natural destinations for Mexican Americans.

Between 1820, when immigration records first began to be kept, and 2000, the largest number of immigrants came from Germany (7,176,071). Mexico has risen in the past decade to second place (6,138,150), followed by Italy (5,435,830), Great Britain (5,271,016), Ireland (4,782,083), Canada (4,487,572), and Austria-Hungary (4,367,664). About 40% of all U.S. immigrants throughout much of U.S. history have been from the five European nations of Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, and Austria-Hungary. Although Latin American (especially Mexican), Caribbean, and Asian immigration is increasing rapidly and will soon change the balance, German Americans are still the largest ethnic group in America, among those who claimed an ancestry other than simply "American" in the 2000 U.S. Census. German Americans are followed (in descending order) by Irish, African, English, Mexican, Italian, Polish, French, Native North American, Scottish, Dutch, Norwegian, Scotch-Irish, and Swedish.

According to 2000 U.S. Census foreign-born population figures, today's immigrants prefer to settle in California (8.9 million), New York (3.9 million), Texas (2.9 million), Florida (2.7 million), New Jersey (1.5 million), and Illinois (1.5 million).


In general, U.S. immigrants are expected to learn English, and most work hard to do so. Foreign-born immigrants who do not speak English are at a great disadvantage in the English-dominated society of the United States. Language barriers severely limit employment opportunities and make life in general much more difficult. American-born children of first-generation immigrants grow up speaking English at school and with their friends, however, so they develop a natural fluency. This can create tension in the family as children become more capable in many ways than their parents. Parents may also resent the fact that their children lose fluency in the language of the parents' homeland. Communication and cultural conflicts abound between first- and second-generation immigrants due to these language differences.

The recent influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants has led to de facto bilingualism in many major cities, including Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Hispanic Americans promote bilingual education, at least in elementary school, to give their children a greater chance of succeeding. An anti-Hispanic backlash among some European Americans has spawned the "English Only" movement, which began in Miami in 1980 and spread quickly across the United States. "English Only" proponents want to have English declared the official language of the United States.

American English has incorporated many words from its immigrants' languages, however. "Cookie," "spook," and "waffle" come from the Dutch, while German Americans contributed "kindergarten," "gesundheit," "ouch," "delicatessen," and "blitz." Even Filipino Americans, though small in number, have given American English the words "yo yo" and "boondocks."

English has borrowed numerous words from the French, including "boulevard," "avenue," "laissez-faire," "coup" and "coup d'état" "potpourri," "r.s.v.p." (répondez, s'il vous plait), "chic," and "déjàvu." French and Italian have given Americans many words for foods and cooking methods, such as "omelet," "mayonnaise," "hors d'oeuvres," "bouillon," "filet," "purée," "sauté," and "àla mode," from the French, and "pasta," "spaghetti," "ravioli," and the like from Italian.

Many U.S. immigrants Americanize their names in order to blend in with mainstream society. This was particularly true for second-wave immigrants. German names like Schmidt became the common English name Smith. Lebanese Americans changed their names from Haddad and Ashshi to their English equivalents, Smith and Cook. Italian Americans simply removed the final letter or letters from their names to change Italian-sounding names like Rossi and Gilberti to the English Ross and Gilbert. Today's immigrants are more likely to retain their original names, although some Hispanics drop their mother's surname, keeping only their father's (as is customary in mainstream America), and some Asians reverse their names to follow the standard American given name-surname order.


Immigrants to the United States bring with them the legends and folktales of their homelands. Some of those tales have made it into the general American culture. The German stories in the Grimm brothers' collection, as well as those by the French storyteller Charles Perrault and Danish master Hans Christian Andersen, are very well known by nearly all second-and later-generation Americans. Persian tales from the Arabian Nights and English nursery rhymes from Mother Goose are also quite familiar to most Americans.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized two early American heroines. Longfellow's poem The Courtship of Miles Standish recounts the romance of Priscilla Mullins (Molines), a French Huguenot immigrant, and Evangeline tells the story of a young Cajun woman of that name. A real-life Cajun character who has since become legendary is pirate Jean Lafitte.

In recent years, increasing efforts are being made to record the folktales of various ethnic groups in America. Hmong legends have been collected by Charles Johnson in a book called Myths, Legends, and Folktales from the Hmong of Laos, published by Macalester College in 1985. Amy Tan and other Asian writers have begun telling the stories handed down to them by their parents and grandparents. Anthologies of Irish, Scottish, and other folklore are becoming widely available as well in libraries and bookstores across America.


The first English colonists in America were staunch Protestants and gave the United States a definite Protestant character for much of its history. The early English Protestants were joined by Dutch, French (Huguenot), Scotch-Irish, Scandinavian, and German Protestants during the 18th and early 19th centuries. This union cemented the Protestant slant of the United States. The Irish constituted the first major wave of Catholics in the United States and came to dominate the American Catholic Church. Some Italian, some German, Polish, and Hispanic Catholics found Irish Catholicism rather unappealing when they arrived in the United States and formed their own parishes.

The Greeks and Eastern Europeans brought another form of Christianity to America, known as the Orthodox Church. Small groups of Anabaptists, such as the Amish, Quakers, and Mennonites, created their own distinctive Protestant communities. American Jews gathered together and built synagogues, and Asian American Buddhists and Hindus constructed temples and ashrams. Eventually, enough Arabs immigrated to the United States to establish Muslim mosques; the lack of mosques had discouraged Arab immigration for some time.

Clearly, the United States is no longer a Protestant nation. Christianity is still the majority religion, but other religions are well represented. Mainstream Americans have recently shown an increasing interest in Asian philosophy and religion, such as Buddhism, Zen, yoga, and the martial arts.


Most U.S. immigrants learn to celebrate major American holidays such as Memorial Day (the last Monday in May), Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day (the first Monday in September), and Thanksgiving (the last Thursday in November). They also celebrate whichever holidays are recognized in their particular religious faith. Many non-Christian Americans observe Christmas as well because it has become as much a secular, commercial holiday as a religious one in America.

Every ethnic group seems to have its own New Year's Day. The official American date for New Year's is January 1, but for Jewish Americans, New Year's (or Rosh Hashanah) falls sometime in September or October; for Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, it occurs in late January or early February; the Cambodian American New Year is in mid-April; and Hmong Americans ring in the New Year in December.

French Cajun and Creole Americans hold a huge festival every year in New Orleans on Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), the day before the Christian observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Parades of costumed, masked figures, music and dancing, feasting, and general revelry draw thousands of visitors from across America. Irish Americans introduced St. Patrick's Day on March 17, and Italian Americans made Columbus Day on October 12 into a national holiday.

Certain holiday traditions have also spread from specific ethnic groups into mainstream America. Blindfolded children of all backgrounds swing sticks at Hispanic piñatas (hollow, animal-shaped pottery or plaster containers that are filled with candy and gifts), and try to break them so the contents will spill out. The American name for Santa Claus comes from the Dutch word for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, but the character itself was brought to America by the Germans. German Americans also introduced the traditions of Christmas trees and New Year's Eve festivities.


Other than birth, marriage, and funeral rites, most American immigrants drift away from traditional rites of passage. As a society, America has few meaningful rituals to denote passage from one stage of life to the next. Academic graduations, the first job, getting a driver's license, reaching the legal voting or drinking age, buying a house, and marriage are today's American rites of passage. Only Jews (and some Native North Americans) have managed to maintain their traditional rituals. Most Jewish boys and many Jewish girls go through a bar or bat mitzvah at the age of 13, the ritual age of adulthood.


Every immigrant group brings with it to the United States its own customs of interpersonal relations. American-born children, however, quickly become "Americanized" and begin to lose their distinctive ethnic style of interaction. Certain tendencies may remain for generations, such as the Italian American flair for dramatics versus the German American somber stoicism.

Nearly every immigrant group soon establishes mutual assistance organizations, as well as social and cultural associations. These organizations and associations replace the support given by extended families and close-knit communities in the immigrants' homelands.


Newly arrived immigrants to the United States often live in overcrowded slums until they are able to earn enough money to move to better neighborhoods. Those who do not speak English have an added barrier to success and must work extra hard to improve their circumstances. Even immigrants who have English language skills and upper-level educational and employment experience may still have to start working below their qualification level and find themselves with a much lower standard of living than that to which they were accustomed in their former homeland.

Refugees suffer from shock, injuries, and illnesses sustained prior to and during immigration, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other stress-related diseases. Many of today's refugees from Southeast Asia and Latin America have problems as severe as those found in survivors of Nazi concentration camps in World War II (1939–45).

Many immigrant groups continue to practice traditional folk remedies, such as teas or charms, to cure illness. First-generation immigrants from less industrialized countries are often hesitant to use modern Western medicine or go to Western doctors or hospitals. Mainstream Americans, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly interested in some of these folk remedies, creating an "alternative" medicine movement. Eastern medicine, brought to the United States by Asian Americans, has gained many adherents throughout the United States among Asian and non-Asian Americans alike.


Family structure is perhaps the element of immigrants' lives that undergoes the most change upon resettlement in America. Many immigrants come from cultures that center on extended families with clearly defined gender and generational roles. American society, on the other hand, is highly mobile (creating a focus on nuclear family units), youth-oriented, and much less gender-defined. Immigrant families are often torn apart by immigration or the need to travel once in the United States to find work. Children quickly learn that American youth are independent and begin to resent their parents' control. Foreign-born parents are dismayed by their Americanized children's lack of respect and obedience. Foreign-born parents whose traditional culture involves arranged marriages are also distressed when their Americanized children want to go out on dates without chaperones and choose their own mates.

Many women are forced to work outside the home to help support the family, perhaps the first time they have ever done so. Men feel diminished because they are no longer the sole breadwinner, and they may feel their authority is threatened. Some women discover that they like having more freedom and begin to resist their traditionally defined roles. Some men who are frustrated by their inability to support their families and by their wives' new independence turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings. They may also take out their frustrations on the women and children around them by becoming verbally or physically abusive. Domestic violence is a serious problem among some immigrant families.

The generation gap that always exists between parents and children, and even more so between grandparents and grandchildren, is intensified by the cultural differences between foreign-born parents and grandparents and American-born children. For some immigrants, a new conflict between men and women is introduced by the increased freedom for women in the United States, and the necessity for women to work outside the home. Tensions lessen with each succeeding generation as the family becomes more Americanized. However, with the lessening of tensions comes a loss of traditional ethnic culture.


Today's world is becoming increasingly westernized, and many recent U.S. immigrants arrive in America with much the same clothing as mainstream Americans wear. Others, such as some Asian Indian women and Muslim Arabs, continue to wear their traditional clothing in the United States. Separatist groups like the Amish and conservative Mennonites wear distinctive dress based on centuries-old styles. All ethnic groups have cultural festivals in which dancers or parade participants wear the traditional dress of their particular culture, but most U.S. immigrants quickly adapt to American-style clothing for everyday use.

Certain elements of typical American dress were introduced by U.S. immigrants. For example, the blue denim used to make blue jeans is probably based on a kind of Cajun cloth dyed with indigo. Tartan plaids and tweed woolens were brought to America by the Scottish and Scotch-Irish. Various immigrant groups have brought with them different types of hats that then were worn by all Americans, such as the English bowler or French beret.


American food is a colorful blend of many different ethnic traditions, as well as indigenous foods such as squashes and turkey. The cuisine of some immigrant groups has become popular on its own, like Mexican, Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indian, Middle Eastern (Arab), Greek, and Cajun. Ethnic restaurants do a good business in most areas of the United States. Newer immigrant groups are beginning to introduce their cuisines to the general American public; restaurants serving Cuban, Central American, Vietnamese, or Cambodian foods are gaining popularity.

Many immigrant groups have introduced specific foods that have become a part of mainstream American eating. Jewish Americans contributed bagels with lox, deli foods, kosher dill pickles, potato latkes, and chicken soup (as a cure for the common cold). From the Dutch came pancakes, waffles, cole-slaw, doughnuts, and cookies, while the Germans brought beer, frankfurters, hamburgers, potato salad, bratwurst, liverwurst, and pretzels. Sauerkraut is credited to both Germans and Poles, and Poles and Russians share credit for vodka. Poles also gave America kielbasa, pierogis, Polish dill pickles, and Polish ham, and Russians taught Americans to eat chicken kiev, stroganoff, sour cream, borscht, and pumpernickel bread, as well as to drink tea with lemon. The Scottish can be thanked for Scotch whiskey.


Almost without exception, immigrants to the United States place a high value on education. A number of immigrants come to the United States expressly to pursue higher education or to give their children a chance at a good education. A few immigrant groups dismissed higher education at first as unnecessary (such as Polish, Slavic, and Italian Americans), believing a steady job was more important than an academic degree. Later generations of these groups have become more interested in education after seeing the opportunities it makes available in the United States. In particular, after World War II (1939–45), many soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill to pay for higher education and advanced themselves to skilled labor or professional positions.

A number of immigrant groups founded ethnic schools, usually meeting on weekday afternoons or weekend mornings, to promote their traditional language and culture. Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, among others, created these schools to teach their children traditional ethnic ways. Foreign-born parents for the most part want their children to become Americans, but they also fear the complete Americanization that makes their children strangers to them and to their ancestral language and traditions. Most children resent the extra time they must spend on ethnic school work when their other American friends are out playing or taking part in extracurricular activities. Some children, on the other hand, appreciate learning about their ethnic background and enjoy speaking their ancestral language.

The Roman Catholic parochial school system, which provides good-quality, inexpensive private education for many American children, was established by Irish Americans in the 1830s–1840s. German Americans introduced the concept of kindergarten and founded the first U.S. kindergartens in the 1850s. They are also responsible for the inclusion of physical education in school curricula. Higher education for the deaf was developed in large part by the French American Gallaudet family, founders of what is now called Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the United States. French Americans also founded the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, the premier music school in America.

Other colleges and universities founded by U.S. immigrant groups include St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, established in 1874 by Norwegian Americans; and Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, founded by Scottish Americans as a Presbyterian seminary in 1746.


American arts culture, like American food, is a rich mixture of various ethnic elements contributed by the multitude of immigrants who make up America's population. Greek architecture with its massive columns stands alongside small Swedish log cabins and Haitian "shotgun" houses. Latin American surrealist fiction and poetry shares the shelf with books of Japanese haiku. The Japanese arts of ikebana (flower-arranging) and origami (paper-folding) are pursued by non-Japanese as well as Japanese Americans. One of the most enduring symbols of America, the Statue of Liberty, is a combination of French and Jewish talents. The statue was designed by French artist Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, and the poem on the base ("Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free… ") was written by Jewish American Emma Lazarus.

The Hollywood film industry was founded by two Hungarian Americans, Adolph Zukor and William Fox, and countless immigrant American actors and directors have made it a worldwide success. Italian Americans brought with them a love of opera, and in New York City in 1932, Italian immigrant Lorenzo Da Ponte founded the Italian Opera House, the first opera house in the United States.

American music is a true festival of ethnicity. Cajun music, Zydeco, Latin salsa, Cuban rhythms, Mexican mariachi and Tex-Mex sounds, Polish and German polkas, Asian Indian ragas, and the drone of Scottish bagpipes are heard across the United States. The rumba, mambo, Conga lines, and chachachá, very popular dances in mainstream America during the 1930s and 1940s, were introduced by Cuban immigrants. The now-common Christmas carol, "Carol of the Bells," was first brought to the United States by the Ukrainians.

The structure of blues music, one of the most "American" forms of music, is based on Haitian folk songs sung by early Haitian immigrants to Louisiana in the 19th century. Haitian Americans also contributed certain drums and rhythms, as well as the banjo, to American music. Early American folk music consisted largely of old ballads from England, brought by the very first English settlers. Today's American folk music, as well as country and western, rock, funk, and other genres, is an inextricable blend of elements from nearly every immigrant group that has ever set foot on the shores of America.


America is built on the backs of its immigrants. All immigrant groups, from the very first to the most recent, documented and undocumented, have poured their energies into the American labor pool. Many immigrants begin in unskilled, menial labor positions because they lack the language and/or industrialized job skills to be employed at higher levels. Even those with advanced degrees and experience must often start out in jobs for which they are overqualified, until they gain the language skills and accreditation required in the United States for higher-level positions.

During times of expansion and economic growth, the United States has encouraged immigration in order to build its labor force. During the late 1800s, the United States even advertised for immigrants in Western European countries. In contrast, when the economy is depressed, immigration is discouraged because of fears of job scarcity. Peoples of many less-industrialized countries continue to see America as a land of opportunity regardless of the current state of the U.S. economy because even during a depression, the United States still offers a great deal more in the way of economic advancement than do their homelands.

When the United States chooses to restrict immigration during economic downturns, many underprivileged peoples choose to use " illegal" means of gaining entry to America. Undocumented migrants have always existed in U.S. society; the agricultural industry of the West and Southwest was largely developed through undocumented migrant labor. Employers continue to hire undocumented workers because they do not have to pay them the legal minimum wage and can therefore save a great deal in wage costs. The employers' savings are passed on to the consumer in lower prices. Although the U.S. government attempts to stem the flow of undocumented migration, the U.S. economy actually benefits from the migrants' labor, encouraging both sides (migrants and government) to continue playing their part in the game.


Many sports now popular in the United States were introduced by immigrant groups. For example, both downhill and cross-country skiing were brought to America by the Norwegians, while the Scots brought golf and curling (a sort of shuffleboard on ice). The Italians taught Americans to play bocce (lawn bowling), and the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans shared their various martial arts.

The United States introduced the sport of baseball to other countries, and many players from those countries now add their skills to U.S. teams. Cuban, Dominican, and Central American players, among others, are common in the U.S. major leagues. Softball leagues and Little League teams are sponsored by many different U.S. immigrant groups. Soccer, the most popular sport in the rest of the world, is becoming more popular in the United States through the influence of a variety of immigrant groups. Sports, particularly baseball, can open the door for some immigrants who would otherwise have a difficult time being accepted for immigration to the United States.


All immigrants to America bring with them their own forms of entertainment and recreation. Some of those entertainments make their way into the larger American culture. For example, the early English Puritans were very somber people who did not believe in frivolous activities. When the Germans arrived, however, they instilled a different sense of fun into American society. Rather than the strict observances of the Puritan sabbath on Sundays, German Americans spent the day resting and enjoying a break from their labors. Today's understanding in the United States of weekends as a time of play descends from those original German Americans. German Americans also introduced the ever-popular Oktoberfest, and beer gardens, to the United States.

Many U.S. immigrant groups gather one or more times a year for cultural festivals that serve as ethnic pride and education events, as well as times for socializing. Among some traditional groups, the festivals are also an opportunity to meet potential marriage partners. Others simply enjoy eating their ethnic foods, wearing their traditional costumes, and listening and dancing to traditional ethnic music. On an everyday basis, most U.S. immigrants quickly adopt American forms of entertainment and recreation, such as watching television or going to movies.


Examples of ethnic folk arts can be found at the various cultural festivals held across the United States each year. Certain ethnic crafts, such as painted Ukrainian Easter eggs and Hmong paj ntaub (an intricate form of needlework, also known as pa ndau), have become more widely popular in America. Some Amish crafts are considered valuable collectors' items in the United States.

Mexican and Central American folk arts are gaining popularity among the general American public today. Hispanic American murals grace the walls of many buildings in major U.S. cities, and shops selling santos (homemade religious figurines) or other Latin American crafts are frequented by Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans alike. The new trend towards multiculturalism and ethnic pride in the United States is creating a wider market for folk arts and crafts of all ethnic groups in America today.


The Ku Klux Klan, a violent white supremacist group, was founded in the 19th century by Scotch-Irish Americans. This was not the beginning of racism in America, however. Racism has always been a serious problem in American society, as has religious discrimination, ethnic hostility, and cultural prejudice. The Puritan settlers of the 1600s came to the New World to escape religious persecution in England but then proceeded to persecute non-Puritans who dared to settle near them in America. Anti-Asian legislation was passed in California as early as the 1850s, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any further Chinese immigration to the United States, was passed a short time later in 1882.

Anti-German hysteria during World Wars I (1914–18) and II (1939–45) was so extreme that music by Beethoven was banned from symphony concert programs, sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage," and even dachshunds (meaning "German hounds") were dubbed "liberty hounds." Hungarian Americans also met with suspicion during the wars, as Hungary was allied with Germany. All American ethnic groups were driven to hide their ethnicity and prove themselves "good Americans" during the war years.

One of the most blatant and grievous examples of racial hostility in the United States was the internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps during World War II (1939–45). Americans whose only crime was their ethnic background were forced from their homes and imprisoned for the dura`tion of the war with Japan. Anti-Asian violence continues to be a problem today, particularly with the recent influx of large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees into many U.S. cities.

The brutal attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 by the terrorist Al Qaeda group sparked a new xenophobic era of prejudice, violence, and discrimination against all Arabs or even those who "look" Arab, even though many Arab Americans were also killed in the attacks and others rallied to the support of the victims. Much confusion over the identities and allegiances of the attackers prompted non-Arab Americans to blame anyone in a headscarf or with an Arab name for the horrors and to retaliate accordingly. At the same time, a number of Arab and non-Arab American groups took the opportunity to begin educational programs and cooperative efforts to promote better understanding among all Americans. The result was that along with the rise in hate crimes came a new sense of neighborliness and mutual cross-cultural respect.

Although the American consciousness continues to lean towards multiculturalism and ethnic pride today, racism and cultural conflicts still plague the United States. Current immigration policies, though made more inclusive by reforms in the 1960s, continue to provoke accusations of racism, as white Cubans are welcomed while black Haitians and Dominicans are denied entry. Mixed-race Mexicans and Central Americans are also refused refugee status. U.S. investments in foreign countries and influence over their governments play a large part in refugee status decisions as well. However, racism cannot be denied. The perpetual flow of undocumented migrants across the Mexico-U.S. border is another contentious issue with continuing debates in Congress as well as among the general population over proposed solutions. A bill was passed in 2006 to build a "secure fence" along the border, but the efficacy of that solution (as well as how to fund it) continues to be hotly argued by opponents. A number of demonstrations have been staged in recent years by supporters of both sides of the controversy surrounding undocumented migration.

Another result of the September 11 attacks was an increased concern with national security, particularly as it relates to our borders. Keeping undocumented Mexicans out of the United States is not the only reason to tighten border regulations. There is a very real desire to keep out those who wish to do America harm. Even the long-open border with Canada now requires a passport from all wishing to cross into the United States.

Despite new fears, and old ones, the great experiment of a nation created out of many racial, ethnic, and cultural elements continues in America. New immigrants arrive daily to add their ingredients to the mix, and American society takes on a slightly different flavor with each one. The United States is faced with many decisions today about who and how many to allow through its doors, and tomorrow will surely bring others. The choices that are made will determine the future shape of America.


Throughout its entire history, U.S. immigration law has consistently denied one group access to legal immigration to the United States: homosexuals. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act excluded those "afflicted with psychopathic personality, epilepsy or mental defect," which was understood to include homosexuals. In 1965, the act was amended to state this intention more clearly, excluding those "afflicted with sexual deviation." When the U.S. Surgeon General issued a new policy in 1979 declaring that homosexuality should not be considered a mental disease or defect, homosexuals began to challenge decisions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that excluded them on the basis of their sexual orientation alone and finally won a case in 1983. Given these changes, the 1990 Immigration Act no longer excluded immigrants based on sexual orientation.

However, anyone testing positive for the HIV/AIDS virus is still denied entry to the United States, and all applicants for immigrant visas are required to take an HIV/AIDS test. Also, anyone found carrying HIV/AIDS medications in their luggage can be refused entry. This obviously prevents homosexuals who are HIV-positive from crossing the border. A noncitizen living legally in the United States can even be refused reentry after traveling abroad if he or she is HIV-positive.

The major obstacle to immigration for homosexuals, however, is the centrality of "family reunification" in U.S. immigration law. Because same-sex marriage is not recognized by the U.S. government, a gay or lesbian U.S. citizen cannot sponsor his or her same-sex partner for immigration, as an opposite-sex spouse can do. Even if the immigrant's country of origin recognizes the same-sex marriage, or if the couple was married in a U.S. state where the marriage is legally recognized, the INS refuses to view the couple as "family." This leaves binational same-sex partners with few options. Most try to juggle different types of visas to extend their time together; some choose to stay beyond the expiration date of their visas and become "illegal" immigrants, or even enter into sham heterosexual marriages to stay near their partner, taking the risk either way of being deported if discovered. Others decide to leave the United States altogether and move to a country that honors same-sex unions.

The Permanent Partners Immigration Act was introduced in Congress in 2000 to change the INS definition of "family" to include same-sex partners, but the bill never made it out of committee. It was then rewritten and resubmitted in 2005 as the Uniting American Families Act and has over 100 co-sponsors from both houses. Among the many organizations that support the bill are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and People for the American Way. If passed, the act will add the term "permanent partner" to all sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act where "spouse" appears, thereby allowing lesbians and gays to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration.


Gonzales, Juan L., Jr. Racial and Ethnic Groups in America, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1993.

Human Rights Watch. "Family, Unvalued: Discrimination, Denial, and the Fate of Binational Same-Sex Couples Under U.S. Law," (June 22, 2008).

Lambda Legal and Immigration Equality. "Sexual Orientation & Immigration: the Basics," (June 22, 2008).

— — —. "HIV & Immigration: the Basics," (June 22, 2008).

Reimers, David M. A Land of Immigrants. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Rytina, Nancy F. "Refugee Applicants and Admissions to the United States: 2004." In Annual Flow Report, http://www. (June 22, 2008).

— — —. "Ancestry: 2000," 2003pubs/c2kbr-35.pdf (June 22, 2008).

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Immigrants, Fiscal Year 2000." In Fiscal Year 2000 Statistical Yearbook, (June 22, 2008).

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

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American Immigrants